Growing up, as my dad helped me navigate my career path, the one piece of advice that always motivated me was “do something that you love, something you believe in, and the money will follow”. I wanted to see how others are living this prophesy, how they are doing what they love while supporting themselves and their families. I looked at the area of sustainability. It’s a movement that is on the rise, but for many years had a hard time finding support in local and corporate America. One of the mission’s of corporate sustainability is to look beyond profit, to the planet and people that host and support your business.
I talked with two people that have created careers for themselves that focus their skills on supporting sustainability at a personal and corporate level. Connie Lilley has taken her years of PR experience and focused her voice on supporting eco-friendly products and initiatives. She began her career in commercial real estate and, seeing the need for more sustainable buildings to attract good tenants, created a team to educate others on how to make their buildings greener. The group is now a national green team with 400 members. Connie also runs her own PR company, ECO PR Group, that supports clients within the sustainability industry. She was recently hired by ECOstore USA to do marketing for their non-toxic cleaning, baby care, pet care and body care products.
Duane Maladecki was looking for a change in his career. After 20 years in marketing, he took time off to reflect on what he wanted to do next. “I made a decision to use my business background, education, and skills that I’ve learned over the past 20 years and put that to use in an industry that makes a difference in the world.” He took control of his career path by creating a position for himself at RecycleBank, an organization that he saw supporting his values of community recycling, and also by becoming a partner in a wind farm development company.
I spoke with Connie and Duane about some of the highs and lows of working in sustainability.
Sustainability is a term used in a range of situations. What does sustainability mean to you?
Connie: I have two different ways that I would define it. One is personal and one is business.
Personally, it means to think about the way I live – the choices I make on what I’m purchasing. I try to think of all the things that would reduce landfills or reduce greenhouse gas emissions or save energy. It’s not just about recycles; It’s about making a choice to buy less or buy differently. If we’re all a little bit conscious of it, we will get better at it. It makes a big difference.
For businesses and corporations to become more sustainable, they must incorporate the triple bottom line – which is people, planet, and profit – into their strategic plan. It forces them to pay attention to how the planet is involved and how the people are taken care of; what type of environment are they working in. I truly do believe that you can pay attention to all three and still get a return on investment for that effort.
Duane: For me, sustainability means trying to be as self-sufficient as possible. It may be almost impossible to be completely removed from every aspect of involvement in government or business but trying to be as self-sufficient as possible is my ultimate goal. I’d like to buy 20 or 30 acres to do organic farming for myself, for my family, for my extended family. We would like to live off the land.
Has focusing on sustainability posed any challenges in pursuing your career?
Connie: It’s a little slower in being accepted than I thought it would. The communities in Michigan are, understandably, focused on dealing with day-to-day issues of how they are going to survive the recession. It’s hard for them to think about doing something that will take 3 to 4 years to pay off. It was also difficult to see big movement in corporate sustainability when they were dealing with this downturn in our economy. I think hopefully there will be a turn the other way, it will just be a little slower that I would have enjoyed. My hope is that people take ownership of a program and really believe that it’s not just about tree-hugging, but the financial savings you’ll have also.
Duane: Just like anything else, because the economy is so terrible, nobody has any money to do anything, not just with RecycleBank or recycling. There are a lot of great things that I think are going to be on the horizon, but nobody has the money or resources to do the things they’d like to do right now. There are a lot of great ideas out there in concept, but to actually make it happen is much more difficult in this economic climate.
What mentors do you look up to in your industry that shares your passion for sustainability?
Connie: Fred Keller of Cascade Engineering. He has known about [the triple bottom line] for a long time and he understood the importance of running a company that pays attention to it’s people and the planet as well as the profit. He learned to focus on all of those together and was able to stay afloat in a bad economy. Now in the upturn, he’s ahead of us all. His personal mission and his personal feelings guide how he does business. I admire somebody like that that goes against the tide; that said, “this is how I should run a company, this is the way it should be done”. And now, 30 years later, he was right all along.
Also, Jim Newman from Newman Consulting Group. He has been doing energy auditing for a very long time. He’s not just one of these pop-up auditors that decided to cash in on the industry. It’s something that he’s been doing for a long time and already saw the need for it.
These are the type of people that I have been drawn to; people whose opinions may not be that popular at the time, yet they went with it.
Duane: I don’t have anyone specific. I’m happy that there are more people that are in tune to green action. I’m glad that there are a lot more things that are considered mainstream. People are composting, collecting their own rainwater. It’s more about how there’s been a cultural change across the country.
Do you have any advice for someone pursuing a career in sustainability?
Connie: If you have a passion, position yourself as an expert. It will pay off, even if it takes a few years.
Duane: Don’t give up. There are still barriers with respect to technology limitations or funding but if you have a great idea or you believe in a company, continue to forge ahead.
Written by Jen Waters, marketing associate for Paragon Leadership